Tools of the trade: mastering the interview

3 min read
First Published: 
Sep 2006

Key Learnings contained in this article:

Most health economists, at some point in their careers, will be on one side or other of an interview. For interviewers, it helps to remember the sage words of Louis Pasteur: fortune favours the prepared mind.

In fact, the keys to a successful interview are preparation and relaxation: doing your homework ahead of time to prepare the questions, but being ready to let the interview offer the information in its own way.

  • Be prepared. Draw up a list of questions, but be prepared to deviate from it if you get an interesting but unexpected line of responses. Also, long pauses can make many of us feel uncomfortable, but this is often when the truth (or at least something unintended) is revealed! Fight the urge to fill the ‘pregnant pause’; instead, encourage the interviewee with a simple ‘Oh’ or ‘Really’, or even by just raising an eyebrow, or looking anticipatory.
  • Be kind. Put the subject at ease. Most people need a chance to warm up and relax, and asking the interviewee about him or herself is often a good way to do this. While you may be anxious to get straight to the heart of your subject, most people will become defensive if the interview starts with embarrassing or tough questions.
  • Listen. A good interviewer is a good listener. While it may be necessary to ask an interviewee about a published criticism of their work, try to avoid a debate and offer them a chance to explain their thoughts, eg, ‘I’ve read some criticisms of your study. How do you respond to these comments?’
  • Don’t be intimidated. While we each have made great strides in our fields as health economists, everyone has their own speciality. It’s all right to admit that a certain subject is outside your expertise. This gives interviewees an opportunity to explain and educate, making them feel more at ease because they are ensuring that the subject is explained in their own terms.
  • To edit or not to edit. This may depend on the editing style used by your publication. The spoken word is often quite different from the written word for many people. It is best to use direct quotes when these capture picturesque speech or a colourful or powerful statement. However, be kind to your interviewee: too much colloquialism or idioms (or even sub-standard English) can be embarrassing to the interviewee.
  • Don’t end it too early. While interviewees may insist they have another appointment, try to keep the interview going without causing distress. Offer reassurance that it will end (for example, ‘One last question…’), as you are approaching the end of your question list. Then, end the interview with an open-ended question, such as, ‘Is there something I should have asked, but didn’t?’ or ‘What one thing…?’ This type of questioning flatters the interviewee as an expert (or at least more of an expert than you) and offers the opportunity for some unexpected revelations.

Note: This article is based on the scientific writing and communications course offered at Thomas Jefferson University’s College of Graduate Studies (Philadelphia, PA, USA) taught by HOC editor David Woods, PhD, and from Jorgensen LB. Real-World Newsletters To Meet Your Unreal Demands. Alexandria, VA: EEI Press; 1999.

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Mary Gabb
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